Smithsonian opening a ‘Made in America’ gift shop

Any visitor to a Smithsonian gift shop along the Mall has seen it. Flip over a flag pin, coffee mug or bust of President Obama, and there it is: “Made in China.”

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But in a change prompted by congressional pressure, Americans visiting the American History Museum will soon be able to “Buy American.”

The Smithsonian Institution is planning to stock the shelves of a gift shop adjacent to its popular American presidents exhibit with goods only made in the United States. Visitors to other nearby museums in the coming months will also find more domestically-produced clothing, paperweights, magnets and wood carvings.

Officials unveiled the plans this week after an ultimatum from lawmakers: Either sell more American-made tschotskes or risk losing billions in federal funding.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) first raised objections in January when he learned the Smithsonian was selling presidential busts “crafted in China.” In a strongly-worded letter he urged the Smithsonian to “do its very best to find American companies to manufacture the products that it sells.”

Sanders gave his blessing to the changes during a Capitol Hill meeting this week, but warned he’ll introduce a bill forcing the America-only purchases if they don’t follow through.

Rep. Nick Rahall (W. Va.), the ranking Democrat on a committee overseeing Smithsonian construction, went a step further, this week introducing a bill that would prevent the Smithsonian from using federal dollars for new construction or renovations unless the gift shops within a structure are stocked only with American goods. He called the Smithsonian’s dependence on foreign goods an “insult” to American workers and artists.

The changes come amid an uncertain period for the Smithsonian museums. Officials warned last week that Washington-area Smithsonian museums could lose millions during the busy spring tourist season if a federal government shutdown occurs in the coming weeks. As part of the ongoing budget negotiations, lawmakers may consider trimming the museums budgets or implementing a visitors fee proposed by the president’s bipartisan fiscal commission.

While the patriotic purchasing decisions might score political points, they’ll come at a cost: Some of the museums’s most popular gift shop items are exclusively manufactured overseas, according to Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas.

Visitors spend an average of $20 at Smithsonian gift shops; younger visitors on spring field trips spend much less, she said.

Smithsonian personnel assigned to buy gift shop goods “look for good value, range of prices, where it is made (always seeking made in America first),” St. Thomas said in an e-mail. They only attend American trade shows, contract primarily with U.S.-based companies, and plan to follow up with new domestic vendors who reached out this week after the announcement. However, “There are small crafts shops and specialty manufacturers that cannot meet our need for product, especially in the spring and summer seasons,” St. Thomas said.

What do you think of the changes? Are they a good idea or too much of a burden for the Smithsonian to fulfill? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

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